Hammer House of Horror: The Complete Series (Blu-ray)
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Review of "Hammer House of Horror: The Complete Series (Blu-ray)"
So long Ciao. We had some times.
This set is a more than reasonable £27 on amazon at time of writing.Hammer were the best known horror producer in the UK in the 50s and 60s, but they made their last film in the mid-70s (barring whatever modern company is trading under their name). In 1980 they tried to revive their fortunes on TV instead, the first result being this 13-episode anthology series. Most of the episodes feature the same mansion (is that the ‘house of horror’ the title promises?)
They’re sometimes creepy, but more usually slightly funny, not intentionally. Pretty much every single episode could be the pilot for a slightly off-key sitcom. Almost all the episodes are a bit too long, and feel padded, but it’s one of the better series of its type. They’re also all very low-budget, often featuring about five speaking parts. The series’ spirit is probably best evoked these days by Inside Number Nine, which skirts the same horror-comedy line, but is a bit too clever for its own good sometimes.Anyway, 13 episodes:
We start off with a story about a witch (Patricia Quinn from Rocky Horror) time travelling from the 1600s to escape being burned, and ending up in the 20th century. She starts out as a kind of sexy Catweazle, being scared of electricity and so forth. But soon she’s seduced the guy who lives in her old house, a film composer (Jon Finch from Polanski’s Macbeth). His wife is having an affair with a smarmy GP (Ian McCulloch from Zombie Flesh Eaters), and soon strange accidents start happening.It’s… quite good, I suppose. It certainly starts the series off with a bit of gratuitous nudity, presumably to make sure people would tune in for subsequent instalments (there’s usually a bit of flashed boob in each episode). But it’s not scary. Quinn is reduced to laughing evilly most of the time (she sounds kind of bored by the halfway mark, and her 20th century fillings are visible), while Finch is too theatrical. But it doesn’t drag, and at least has some blood in it.
The Thirteenth Reunion
This has a female journalist sent to investigate an extreme weight loss programme. When a friend there dies under questionable circumstances, she gets drawn into a shady world of rogue undertakers and secret societies.This has some quite effective scares, but is perhaps a bit too silly to work properly. At times it plays like a straight episode of The Avengers, who I’m sure must have tangled with a sinister health farm at some point. Also, Julia Foster, the lead actress, is described repeatedly as overweight when she clearly isn’t, at all, by any standard. There are some good performances – Warren Clarke (from A Clockwork Orange) and Kevin Stoney (from various 60s Dr Who episodes) are both on great form – and it’s a bit nastier than the first episode.
(It also briefly features the guy who played von Smallhausen in Allo Allo. I’m always ridiculously happy to see the cast of Allo Allo in other things.)
Rude AwakeningDenholm Elliott plays an estate agent who keeps having sinister dreams about an old mansion in which people keep accusing him of murdering his wife. He does want rid of her, as he’s having an affair with his secretary, but he hasn’t murdered her… yet.
This is very well directed by Peter Sasdy, a veteran Hammer director, who handles the dream sequences with a great deal of visual stylishness. This is just as well, as the story is rather obvious, with an ending you’ll see coming a mile off, and is blatantly padded. It has nice touches, Elliott is very good, and so are the supporting cast. But it would have been much better at half an hour’s length.
Growing PainsA couple whose son has died adopt a strangely impassive, creepy child from the local orphanage. The dad is a scientist who experiments on rabbits in his basement. Soon the new boy is behaving in a sinister manner, and may be getting possessed by the spirit of his predecessor.
This one, sad to say, is a bit too silly. Too much emphasis on rabbits is rarely a good thing in horror, (see Night of the Lepus if you don’t believe me). While the special effects are decent enough, the acting is a dodgy (especially one of the child actors). The parents are way too trusting of the new kid, and frankly it’s hard to see why they even want a child. There’s an unintentionally hilarious bit with the family dog, but otherwise I found this quite weak.
The House That Bled to DeathA young couple and their child move into a new house, but as we saw in the pre-credits sequence, an old man murdered his wife there some years earlier. Soon the family are experiencing deeply sinister phenomena, including the death of their cat, and blood spurting out of pipes.
This has probably the best title of any episode, and some of the scares are well done – the children’s party especially. It’s also well-acted by a cast that includes people like Brian Croucher (Blake’s 7) and Milton Johns (several Dr Who serials). The problem is that it has such a silly ending that it undoes all the good work in the rest of the episode.This is one of the episodes which has incidental music composed by James Bernard, who did most of Hammer’s best soundtracks back in the day. It certainly gives the episode a Hammer horror feel, but arguably his overwrought gothic orchestrals aren’t completely suited to the material. Still, it’s nice they got him in to do a few episodes.
When a rich uncle dies, his nephew’s girlfriend decides to take his scary African fetish doll which she nicknames Charlie Boy. Soon enough, people who come into contact with the couple start to die horrible deaths.This one has some genuinely quite scary bits, the best being an early encounter with a single-minded thug in a car. But it’s also frequently hilarious, as the obviously-not-accidental deaths are a bit too daft to be taken seriously, and this episode has really unconvincing looking blood. The idol is too OTT to be creepy, but it’s a decent run-through of a well-worn idea. Angela Bruce is very good as the girlfriend, and Marius Goring, a veteran of classic Michael Powell films, has a surprising supporting role as an unscrupulous art dealer.
A man is released from prison, and finds himself employed by an elderly pet shop owner to feed his menagerie of fierce animals, all of which are kept under control by a system of electric shocks and bell rings. Obviously the old man wants to add a human to his zoo, to see if they can be trained as effectively…This is one of the most famous episodes, probably because it stars Peter Cushing, and one of the best. The premise is creepy enough to work, and the man’s wife trying to find him gives the plot enough impetus to make it through the 50 minutes without seeming padded. It’s also well directed, and has three cracking performances. Elaine Donnelly is good as the wife, desperately wanting to believe her husband has turned over a new leaf, and then increasingly worried and resourceful. Brian Cox, looking almost young, is also very good as the thief, although he goes forgivably over the top when trapped in his cell. And Cushing is, as always, a mournfully sinister presence.
The only question is how on earth he replaces the straw in all his animal’s cages. And given that Brian is in that cell for several days, there really ought to be some sign that he’s used one corner of it as a toilet…
Children of the Full MoonThis is another famous episode, in which a young couple on their honeymoon get lost in the wilds of Dorset and end up taking refuge in a mansion full of children who are obviously werewolves.
It skirts the edges of silliness a lot more than some episodes, and could almost be turned into a sitcom. But it’s fairly well acted (good to see Diana Dors doing something other than just playing herself for a change), and is suitably grim and macabre, even if the silly facial hair in the climactic scene lends a slightly-too-farcical air to proceedings. Most episodes have a few moments which probably inspired the League of Gentlemen, but this has more than most. Still, creepy kids are always good value.
I enjoyed this one a lot. A female serial killer is picking up men, murdering them, and cutting out their hearts. The detective assigned to the case begins to suspect it might be connected to the story of a mediaeval murderess…The star of this one is Suzanne Danielle, who is sexy and pretty damn good as the killer (although constructed as a whodunit, the episode tips its hand very early; I can’t believe we’re not meant to know it’s her from the beginning). There’s strong support from Anthony Valentine as the hapless cop, Sian Phillips as a descendant of the original killer, and a succession of pathetic singles bar sleazebags for the killer to work her way through (one of whom is a very, very young Pierce Brosnan). The police investigation is never remotely convincing, especially in the scene where the main detective picks a fight with a drag queen, but that fits with the (perhaps intentional) semi-comic tone.
Guardian of the Abyss
An antique exporter finds himself the owner of a magic mirror, allegedly the very one used by real-life Elizabethan magician John Dee. A local gang of Satanists want the mirror, and the dealer falls for one of their number, who is fleeing for her life.This is another episode that is pretty funny, with satanic antique dealers and a very middle-class coven. It namechecks Crowley as well as Dee, but comes across more as a very cheap imitation of Hammer’s classic The Devil Rides Out, just without the charismatic stars of that film. This episode can only manage a few half-recognised actors, and Avon out of Blake’s Seven. It’s also incredibly predictable, blatantly stealing plot twists from another classic British horror film (I can’t say which one without giving it away).
Visitor from the Grave
A mentally fragile American heiress is attacked by an intruder looking for her boyfriend – she kills the man while he’s trying to rape her. Her boyfriend disposes of the body, and all seems well… but then she starts to see the dead man lurking in dark corners.This is another episode that ends up as unintentionally funny rather than scary. Some of the performances are hilariously OTT, especially Simon MacCorkindale as the boyfriend. Eventually the plot takes in spiritualism and Indian mysticism, but you’ll figure out how it ends about three minutes in. It continues the trend of casting endearing British TV actors, though, with Blake from Blake’s Seven and Howard from Ever Decreasing Circles both playing prominent roles.
The Two Faces of Evil
A family heading off on holiday crash their car when the husband is attacked by a sinister hitch-hiker. When his wife wakes in hospital, everything seems a bit off, with the medical staff and police polite but distant, her son unnaturally cheerful, and her recovering husband mute and suspicious.This is the best episode in the series. It’s a genuinely unsettling idea played brilliantly by the cast, with Anna Calder-Marshall superb as the increasingly terrified wife. It works so well because there’s not a hint of humour in it (unlike in the other episodes). The whole experience could be a result of the wife suffering PTSD following a traumatic accident, or there could be something more sinister going on. It really captures how frightening hospitals can be, and even when it tips its hand and lets us know exactly what’s been going on, it still manages to stay scary. I’m glad I didn’t see this when I was a kid, it would have given me nightmares for years.
The Mark of Satan
A morgue attendant in a hospital becomes convinced that the Devil has chosen him as a disciple through numerology and secret radio transmissions. He tries to fight against it, but it’s clear someone’s going to suffer.This is another episode that works very well, mainly because the main role, of Edwyn the mad morgue attendant, is played brilliantly by Peter McEnery. It would be so easy to lapse into caricature with the part, but he plays him as a man with a serious mental illness who clearly shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a hospital, except as an inmate. There’s also great support from Georgina Hale as the single mother renting a room in Edwyn’s house (who tries to turn Edwyn’s madness to her advantage), and from Emrys James as a cheerfully morbid pathologist.
The violence, when it comes, it genuinely quite affecting, and the episode never quite tips over into parody. It’s a fine finish to the series.
Blu-rayThe episodes look really astonishingly good, considering when they were made, and how low-budget they were. They look better than some actual films of the era – colours are especially good, and there’s a pleasing, light grain on the image. It really feels like more effort has been put into this set than it perhaps deserves. Which I think can also be said of this review…
There aren’t many extras, just a few alternate titles and things. But really, who needs them?--
So there we are. I didn’t intend for this to be my last ciao review when I drafted it, and if I wasn’t in such a hurry to post it I’d have tried to get it to a more reasonable length. But never mind. I didn’t take any screenshots for this because it didn't seem important.I guess it’s a good enough place to end – Hammer’s vision of a Britain that never was, where Nazi war criminals run pet shops, and randy werewolves impregnate passing tourists, where the evil doppelganger of your husband is recognisable by his bad teeth and everything's wrapped up neatly inside an hour.
Peace out, my friends.
Product Information : Hammer House of Horror: The Complete Series (Blu-ray)
Manufacturer's product description
Actor(s) (Last name, First name): Cushing, Peter
Actor(s): Peter Cushing, Diana Dors, Denholm Elliott, Brian Cox, Sian Phillips
Director(s): Don Leaver, Peter Sasdy, Francis Megahy, Tom Clegg, Robert Young
DVD Region: Blu-ray
Classification: 15 years and over
Listed on Ciao since: 21/10/2017